Behar & Jeremiah: When Someone Needs Help

May 6, 2021 at 5:07 pm | Posted in Behar, Jeremiah | Leave a comment

The book of Leviticus/Vayikra is packed with laws for ethical human interactions, as well as rules for religious rituals.  This week Jews read a double Torah portion in Leviticus, Behar and BechukotaiBehar introduces the idea of the yoveil (“jubilee”) every 50 years, when every plot of land in the future kingdom of Israel returns to the family that originally owned it, and every Hebrew slave goes free.1  The reason given is that the real owner of all the land, and the real owner of all Israelite slaves, is God.2  Periodically things must be restored to the way God set them up.

For Israelites who have fallen into debt, the yoveil year is the last resort.  Obviously people who had to sell their land, or themselves, benefit from a clean slate every 50 years.  But the Torah portion also provides instructions for wealthier relatives to “redeem” the land or the slave by serving as the buyer.  If they cannot afford it at the time, they buy the property or person from the first buyer as soon as possible.

The redeemer gets to own the property or person until the yoveil year, but he must treat them well.3

And if your brother under you is [further] impoverished and sells himself to you, do not work him with the work of a slave.  Like a hired or live-in laborer he shall be to you, until the year of the yoveil.  (Leviticus 25:39-40)

In this context, “brother” means any male kinsman.

Similarly, the rules about redeeming a poor kinsman’s property are not just about keeping land in the extended family consisting of descendants of the family that was originally allocated the land in the time of Joshua.

If your kinsman becomes impoverished and must sell part of his property, then his nearest go-eil shall come and ga-al what his kinsman is selling. (Leviticus/Vayikra 25:25)

go-eil (גֹּאֵל) = redeemer; deliverer.

ga-al (גָּאַל) = redeem; prevent purchase by an outsider, buy back from an outsider.

The impoverished man’s nearest go-eil is his closest relative who can afford to buy or buy back, the land.  The go-eil can keep the property and use it himself until the next yoveil year, when all lands will return to the descendants of their original owners.  But he cannot kick his poor relative off the land; the poor man and his family continue to live on the property and become tenant farmers for the new owner.

And if your brother is impoverished and comes under your hand, and you take hold of him [as if he were] at resident alien, then he must thrive with you.  Do not take interest or extra charges from him.  (Leviticus 25:35-36)

The haftarah reading from Jeremiah that accompanies the Torah portion Behar demonstrates that the law for redeeming land also requires the go-eil to look out for the kinsman whose land he has purchased.

Jeremiah and his scribe Baruch in prison, by Gustave Dore, 19th cent. CE

In the haftarah, King Zedekiah of Judah has thrown the prophet Jeremiah in prison because he kept declaring that the king should surrender before Jerusalem fell to Nebuchadnezzar’s troops.  While Jeremiah is in prison, God tells him:

Hey! Chanameil, son of your uncle Shulam, will come to you saying: Buy yourself my field that is in Anatot, because yours is the duty of the ge-ulah to buy it. (Jeremiah 32:7)

ge-ulah (גְּאֻלָּה) = right of redemption; responsibility to redeem. (From the same root as ga-al.)

Sure enough, Jeremiah’s cousin Chanameil does visit him in prison with the news that he is in debt and has to sell the farm.  He is offering the land to Jeremiah first, as the law of ge-ulah requires.  Jeremiah pays his cousin in silver, solving Chanameil’s immediate problem.  He is meticulous about following his country’s legal procedures, even though he knows the whole country will eventually fall to the Babylonian army.4

A few chapters later in the book of Jeremiah, the Babylonian army temporarily lifts the siege of Jerusalem.

And it happened that the Babylonians removed the front-line troops from around Jerusalem, on account of the advancing troops of Pharaoh.  Jeremiah was leaving Jerusalem to go to the territory of Benjamin there lachalik among the people.  And he was at the gate of Benjamin, and there the commander of the guard …arrested Jeremiah the prophet, saying: “You are defecting to the Babylonians!” (Jeremiah 37:11-13)

lachalik (לַחֲלִק) = to participate in the division or distribution of property.

There is no consensus among translators about what lachalik means in this context.5  What other reason would Jeremiah have to leave the shelter of the city, when he knows the Babylonian army will return, except to defect?  One answer is that he is concerned about the land he bought from his cousin in Anatot.  He wants to make sure the sale of his cousin’s land was carried out according to the documents he had prepared.

Jeremiah is not concerned about his ownership of the property, since God has told him the Babylonians will win and everyone will be dispossessed.  He probably wants to check up on his cousin Chanameil and make sure no outsider has kicked him off the land that he is now, technically, farming for Jeremiah.  Until the kingdom of Judah finally falls to the Babylonians, Chanameil needs to farm that land to support himself and his family.

I believe Jeremiah is acting in the spirit, not just the letter, of the law in the Torah portion Behar.  He is his cousin’s go-eil, and as long as possible he will strive to redeem him from poverty.  It is bad luck that he is intercepted at the city gate and thrown into prison, so he cannot carry out his intention.  (You can read more about this haftarah by clicking on this link to my post: Haftarat Behar—Jeremiah: The Redeemer.)

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain asks in the book of Genesis.6  Jeremiah’s actions say yes, as his cousin’s go-eil he is also his cousin’s keeper.  Even after he has redeemed Chanameil’s land, Jeremiah tries to continue to look out for him.

*

The Torah portion Behar sanctions, indeed requires, helping an impoverished member of one’s extended family in a way that also benefits the one who does the good deed.  Today we can write a check to a program for reducing poverty and write it off on our taxes, or do a kindness to a member of our family or community that also burnishes our own reputation.  But I believe we should not stop there.  Like Jeremiah, we should follow up on the results of our action, as long as we are able.

Ethical behavior is not an abstraction or a punch list.  Let’s make it personal.

  1. Leviticus 25:8-16, 25:39-54.
  2. Leviticus 25:23-24, 25:55.
  3. In the world addressed by the Torah, men own all the wealth and women are treated as the property of their husbands, fathers, or masters.
  4. Jeremiah 32:9-14.
  5. Robert Alter even suggests lachalik means “to hide” here, based on an Akkadian cognate, although the word appears to be a hifil form of the kal verb chalak (חָלַק) = divided up, allotted shares. (Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible, Volume 2: Prophets, W. Norton & Co., 2019, p. 983)
  6. Genesis 4:9.

 

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